It’s not often we hear the voices of young people who have sexually harmed others. Many people are not interested in paying attention to them. But there is one topic that we should all turn to them to learn about: How can we prevent other children and teens from making the same destructive mistakes that they did?
This blog will highlight one published study which asked exactly that question, of fourteen young people who completed an Australian treatment program for harmful sexual behavior. They also interviewed six staff members who worked with them. The results give us important insights to consider. They also help us to see and understand the humanity of the children who offered their insights.
McKibbin, G., Humphreys, C., “Talking about child sexual abuse would have helped me”: Young people who sexually abused reflect on preventing harmful sexual behavior Child Abuse & Neglect 2017, 70:210-221
These young people collectively identified three things that would have helped most to prevent their tragic behavior:
Earlier and better education about sexuality
Addressing their own victimization
Help in managing online sexual images.
All three suggestions are supported by other evidence, cited in comments below each.
1. Earlier and better education around sexuality
The teens expressed a need for education around body safety and sexuality starting early, definitely before puberty. They needed it to include specific help to deal with difficult situations and challenges–“more than periods and condoms.” Most of the respondents were boys, and they suggested the education for them would be more effective if delivered by a male adult. One respondent noted that he received no sexuality education after he had been transferred to a school for children with intellectual disabilities.
Early, frequent, comprehensive school-based education is the most effective known approach to prevent child sexual abuse, and to prevent children from sexually harming others
Prevention | Crimes against Children Research Center Finkelhor, 2009
It is unfortunately common for children with intellectual, social, behavioral, or physical delays to be excluded during body safety and sexuality education, despite their increased vulnerability to be exploited and in some cases, an increased risk to harm others without full understanding of what they are doing Advocating for Inclusive Sex Education for Students with Disabilities | Online MSW Programs
2. Addressing their own victimization
Of the fourteen teens interviewed, twelve reported experiencing some type of previous sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. They felt that if their own maltreatment had been recognized and addressed, if someone had made it clear that what happened to them was not OK, it may have given them the knowledge and emotional stability to avoid passing on the hurt. One described wondering why anyone would want to do what was done to him. He immaturely and tragically reasoned that if he tried it on his brother, then he might finally understand.
Past abuse or witnessing of abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, has been found in approximately half of all children with problematic sexual behavior–particularly those who offend at an early age and within the family.
School-based body safety education and discussion of appropriate sexual boundaries has been shown to increase the likelihood that children will disclose sexual abuse. When disclosure does occur, and it leads to appropriate intervention and treatment, it decreases the risk of them experiencing and causing future sexual abuse.
3. Help in managing online sexual images
Twelve of the fourteen teens reported that they had been exposed to pornography before their problematic sexual behavior started, and three said it played a direct role in their path to offending. One was a boy who wanted to try out what he had seen online, and did it with his sister.
The reach of online pornography has increased faster than the ability to study and publish research on the topic. Even research from the pre-smartphone era has shown that the average child comes into contact with pornography prior to puberty and that exposure to pornography increases the risk of carrying out harmful sexual behavior against other children. It is reasonable to assume that this is currently one of the biggest factors influencing children to act in ways that sexually harm their siblings or other children close to them. Therefore, another important step adults can take to prevent child-on-child sexual trauma is to minimize early exposure to pornography. As children grow, adults need to give them tools to understand that porn is not reality, to resist addictive habits, and how to report concerns or get help. This will not only reduce harmful behavior by children, but will also reduce their risk of being exploited by others online.
Young People, Sexuality and the Age of Pornography Massey et al, 2021
Talking to children sooner and more frankly about sexuality, addressing childhood trauma, protecting children from early exposure to harmful sexual images and giving them tools to manage porn exposure as they grow. These steps will not prevent all problematic sexual behavior toward siblings or other children. But it will prevent some–and that is reason enough to do it.